Linguistic prescription, or prescriptive grammar, is the attempt to establish rules defining preferred or correct
usage The usage of a language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most languages have a writing system composed of glyphs to in ...
language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most languages have a writing system composed of glyphs to inscribe the original soun ...
. These rules may address such
linguistic Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of linguistic analysis include phonetics, phonet ...
aspects as
spelling Spelling is a set of conventions that regulate the way of using grapheme In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studyi ...
pronunciationPronunciation is the way in which a word or a language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most languages have a writing s ...
vocabulary A vocabulary, also known as a wordstock or word-stock, is a set of familiar words within a person's language. A vocabulary, usually developed with age, serves as a useful and fundamental tool for communication and learning, acquiring knowledge. ...
syntax In linguistics, syntax () is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of Sentence (linguistics), sentences (sentence structure) in a given Natural language, language, usually including word order. The term ''syntax'' ...
, and
semantics Semantics (from grc, wikt:σημαντικός, σημαντικός ''sēmantikós'', "significant") is the study of meaning, reference, or truth. The term can be used to refer to subfields of several distinct disciplines, including linguistic ...
. Sometimes informed by linguistic purism, such normative practices may suggest that some usages are incorrect, inconsistent, illogical, lack communicative effect, or are of low aesthetic value. They may also include judgments on socially proper and
politically correct Political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct; commonly abbreviated PC) is a term used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society. In public ...
language use. Linguistic prescriptivism may aim to establish a
standard language A standard language (also standard variety, standard dialect, and standard) is a language variety that has undergone substantial codification of grammar and usage and is employed by a population for public communication. The term ''standard langua ...
, teach what a particular society perceives as a correct or best form, or advise on effective and stylistically felicitous communication. If usage preferences are conservative, prescription might appear resistant to
language change Language change is variation over time in a language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most languages have a writing ...
; if radical, it may produce
neologism A neologism (; from Greek νέο- ''néo-'', "new" and λόγος ''lógos'', "speech, utterance") is a relatively recent or isolated term, word, or phrase that may be in the process of entering common use, but that has not yet been fully accepte ...
s. Prescriptive approaches to language are often contrasted with the descriptive approach ("descriptivism"), employed in academic linguistics, which observes and records how language is actually used. entry for "Descriptivism and prescriptivism" quotation: "Contrasting terms in linguistics." The basis of linguistic research is text (
corpus Corpus is Latin language, Latin for "body". It may refer to: Linguistics * Text corpus, in linguistics, a large and structured set of texts * Speech corpus, in linguistics, a large set of speech audio files * Corpus linguistics, a branch of lingui ...
) analysis and field study, both of which are descriptive activities. Description, however, may include researchers' observations of their own language usage. In the Eastern European linguistic tradition, the discipline dealing with standard language cultivation and prescription is known as "language culture" or "speech culture". Despite being apparent opposites, prescription and description are often considered complementary, as comprehensive descriptive accounts must take into account and record existing speaker preferences, and a prior understanding of how language is actually used is necessary for prescription to be effective. Since the mid-20th century some
dictionaries A dictionary is a listing of lexemes from the lexicon of one or more specific language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) an ...
style guides A style guide or manual of style is a set of standards for the writing, formatting and design of documents. It is often called a style sheet, although that term also has other meanings. The standards can be applied either for general use, or b ...
, which are prescriptive works by nature, have increasingly integrated descriptive material and approaches. Examples of guides updated to add more descriptive and evidence-based material include ''
Webster's Third New International Dictionary ''Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged'' (commonly known as ''Webster's Third'', or ''W3'') was published in September 1961. It was edited by Philip Babcock Gove and a team of lexicographers who spent 757 ...
'' (1961) and the third edition ''
Garner's Modern English Usage ''Garner's Modern English Usage'' (''GMEU''), written by Bryan A. Garner and published by Oxford University Press Oxford University Press (OUP) is the university press of University of Oxford. It is the largest university press in the world, ...
'' (2009) in English, or the Petit Robert, ''Nouveau Petit Robert'' (1993) in French. A partially descriptive approach can be especially useful when approaching topics of ongoing conflict between authorities, or in different dialects, disciplines, style (sociolinguistics), styles, or Register (sociolinguistics), registers. Other guides, such as ''The Chicago Manual of Style'', are designed to impose a single style and thus remain primarily prescriptive (). Some authors define "prescriptivism" as the concept where a certain language variety is promoted as linguistically superior to others, thus recognizing the standard language ideology as a constitutive element of prescriptivism or even identifying prescriptivism with this system of views. Others, however, use this term in relation to any attempts to recommend or mandate a particular way of language usage (in a specific context (language use), context or register (sociolinguistics), register), without, however, implying that these practices must involve propagating the standard language ideology. According to another understanding, the prescriptive attitude is an approach to norm-formulating and codification (linguistics), codification that involves imposing arbitrary rulings upon a speech community, as opposed to more liberal approaches that draw heavily from descriptive surveys; in a wider sense, however, the latter also constitute a form of prescriptivism. Mate Kapović makes a distinction between "prescription" and "prescriptivism", defining the former as "process of codification of a certain variety of language for some sort of official use", and the latter as "an unscientific tendency to mystify linguistic prescription".


Linguistic prescription is categorized as the final stage in a language standardization process. It is culture dependent and politically motivated. It can be called social progress and included in the cultivation of a culture. As culture is seen to be a major force in the development of standard language, multilingual countries often promote standardization and advocate adherence to prescriptive norms. The chief aim of linguistic prescription is to specify socially preferred language forms (either generally, as in Standard English, or in Style (sociolinguistics), style and Register (sociolinguistics), register) in a way that is easily taught and learned. Prescription may apply to most aspects of language, including spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, and semantics. Prescription is useful for facilitating inter-regional communication, allowing speakers of divergent dialects to understand a standard language, standardized idiom used in broadcasting, for example, more readily than each other's dialects. While such a lingua franca may evolve by itself, the tendency to formally codification (linguistics), codify and normalize it is widespread in most parts of the world. Foreign language instruction is also considered a form of prescription, since it involves instructing learners how to speak, based on usage documentation laid down by others. Linguistic prescription may also be used to advance a social or political ideology. During the second half of the 20th century, efforts driven by various advocacy groups had considerable influence on language use under the broad banner of "political correctness", to promote special rules for Gender-neutral language, anti-sexist, anti-racist, or generically anti-Discrimination, discriminatory language (e.g. "people-first language" as advocated by disability rights organizations).


Prescription presupposes authorities whose judgments may come to be followed by many other speakers and writers. For English, these authorities tend to be books. Henry Watson Fowler, H. W. Fowler's ''Fowler's Modern English Usage, Modern English Usage'' was widely taken as an authority for British English for much of the 20th century; William Strunk, Jr., Strunk and E. B. White, White's ''The Elements of Style'' has done similarly for American English. The ''Duden'' grammar (first edition 1880) has a similar status for German. Although lexicographers often see their work as purely descriptive, dictionaries are widely regarded as prescriptive authorities. Books such as Lynne Truss's ''Eats, Shoots & Leaves'' (2003), which argues for stricter adherence to prescriptive punctuation rules, also seek to exert an influence.

Formal regulation

Linguistic prescription is imposed by regulation in some places. The ''Académie française, French Academy'' in Paris is the national body in France whose recommendations about the French language are often followed in the Francophonie, French-speaking world (francophonie), though not legally enforceable. In Germany and the Netherlands, recent spelling and punctuation reforms, such as German orthography reform of 1996, the German orthographic reform of 1996, were devised by teams of linguists commissioned by the respective governments and then implemented by statutes, some met with widespread dissent. Examples of national prescriptive bodies and initiatives are: * Afrikaans: The Die Taalkommissie, ''Taalkommissie'' (Language Commission) is responsible for the compilation of the ''Afrikaanse Woordelys en Spelreëls'' (Afrikaans Word-list and Spelling Rules), an orthography of formal, standardized Afrikaans. * Albanian language, Albanian: The Social Sciences and Albanological Section of the Academy of Sciences of Albania for the Tosk variety of the Albanian language, Albanian standard language. * Canadian French: The ''Office québécois de la langue française'' in the Canadian province of Québec, where French is perceived to be particularly threatened by the incursion of English. * Dutch language, Dutch: In the Netherlands and the Flanders region of Belgium, standardized spelling norms are compulsory for government publications and in education (see Wordlist of the Dutch language). The Flemish press and other media also adhere to these rules. In the Netherlands, however, the media apply a slightly adapted spelling, as outlined in the White Booklet. * French language, French: The recommendations of the ''Académie française'', a national body, are legally unenforceable, but they are often followed by standard French speakers. * German language, German: The German orthography reform of 1996 established statutory national normative spelling usages for each of the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Belgium). It has, however, been comprehensively disregarded by many people; in relevance, it became so controversial in the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein that in a plebiscite held there in 1998 56.4% of voters opposed its implementation. Notwithstanding, the Schleswig-Holstein parliament reversed the referendum outcome in 1999. Many major German newspapers chose to implement the reforms only partially (e.g. Axel Springer AG, Der Spiegel) or to reject it entirely, ending a period when combined German spelling, although officially only necessary in government and educational use, was the widespread ''de facto'' standard. * Italian language, Italian: The ''Accademia della Crusca, Academy of the Bran (Accademia della Crusca)'', the Italian language academic body. * Polish language, Polish: The Polish Language Council for standard Polish language, Polish, which aims to popularize Polish language knowledge, issue prescriptions for standard usage ( pl, poprawna polszczyzna, lit. "correct Polish") and formulate normative orthography. The Polish prescriptive policy recognizes two normative subvarieties of standard Polish: the "model/official norm" ( pl, norma wzorcowa) and the "colloquial/vernacular norm" ( pl, norma użytkowa), with the former being a highly traditionalistic idiom for written language and public usage, and the latter being a more liberal idiom for private contexts that is more permissive for loanwords and deviations from "traditional" usage. According to the Polish language ideology, the latter is also considered to include regional usages. * Romanian language, Romanian: The Romanian Academy for standard Romanian language, Romanian, whose interpretations and instructions are approved by the Romanian state and other substances where Romanian is authoritatively recognized (e.g. the European Union and Vojvodina). In the Republic of Moldova, Moldovan Republic, the only country besides Romania where Romanian is the state language, it is officially called "Moldovan language, Moldovan" and is monitored by the Institute of Linguistics of Academy of Sciences of Moldova. * Russian language, Russian: The Union of Soviet Writers policed the Russian language with linguistic prescription to establish a Standard Russian#Standard Russian, standardized Russian language during the History of the Soviet Union, era of the Soviet Union. * Spanish language, Spanish: The ''Real Academia Española'' in affiliation with the Association of Spanish Language Academies for standard Spanish language, Spanish in 21 countries.

Style manuals

Other kinds of authorities exist in specific settings, most commonly in the form of style guidebooks (also called style guides, manuals of style, style books, or style sheets). Style guides vary in form, and maybe alphabetical usage dictionaries, comprehensive manuals divided into numerous subsection by the facet of language, or very compact works insistent upon only a few matters of particular importance to the publisher. Some aim to be comprehensive only for a specific field, deferring to more general-audience guides on matters that are not particular to the discipline in question. There are different types of style guides, by purpose and audience. Because the genres of writing and the audiences of each manual are different, style manuals often conflict with each other, even within the same vernacular of English. Many publishers have established an internal Style guide, house style specifying preferred spellings and grammatical forms, such as serial commas, how to write acronyms, and various awkward expressions to avoid. Most of these are internal documentation for the publisher's staff, though various newspapers, universities, and other organizations have made theirs available for public inspection, and sometimes even sell them as books, e.g. ''The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage'' and ''The Economist Style Guide''. In a few cases, an entire publishing sector complies with a publication that originated as a house style manual, such as ''The Chicago Manual of Style'' and ''New Hart's Rules'' in non-fiction book publishing in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively, and ''The Associated Press Stylebook'' in American news style. Others are by self-appointed advocates whose rules are propagated in the popular press, as in "proper Cantonese pronunciation". The aforementioned Fowler, and Strunk & White, were among the self-appointed, as are some modern authors of style works, like Bryan A. Garner and his ''Modern English Usage'' (formerly ''Modern American Usage''). Various style guides are used for academic papers and professional journals and have become ''de facto'' standards in particular fields, though the bulk of their material pertains to formatting of source citations (in mutually conflicting ways). Some examples are those issued by the American Medical Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Modern Humanities Research Association; there are many others. ''Scientific Style and Format'', by the Council of Science Editors, seeks to normalize style in scientific journal publishing, based where possible on standards issued by bodies like the International Standards Organization. None of these works have any sort of legal or regulatory authority (though some governments produce their own house style books for internal use). They still have authority in the sense that a student may be marked down for failure to follow a specified style manual; a professional publisher may enforce compliance; a publication may require its employees to use house style as a matter of on-the-job competence. A well-respected style guide, and usually one intended for a general audience, may also have the kind of authority that a dictionary does consult as a reference work to satisfy personal curiosity or settle an argument.


Historically, linguistic prescriptivism originates in a standard language when a society establishes social stratification and a socio-economic hierarchy. The spoken and written language usages of the Authority, authorities (state, military, church) is preserved as the standard language. Departures from this standard language may jeopardize social success (see social class). Sometimes, archaisms and honorific stylizations may be deliberately introduced or preserved to distinguish the prestige form of the language from contemporary colloquial language. Likewise, the Stylistics (literature), style of language used in ritual also differs from everyday speech. Special Sacred language, ceremonial languages known only to a select few spiritual leaders are found throughout the world; Liturgical Latin has served a similar function for centuries. When a culture develops a writing system, Orthography, orthographic rules for the consistent transcription of culturally important transactions (laws, scriptures, contracts, poetry, etc.) allow a large number of discussants to understand written conversations easily, and across multiple generations. Early historical trends in literacy and alphabetization were closely tied to the influence of various religious institutions. Western Christianity propagated the Latin alphabet. Eastern Orthodoxy spread the Greek alphabet, Greek and Cyrillic script, Cyrillic alphabets. Judaism used the Hebrew alphabet, and Islam the Arabic alphabet, Arabic script. Hinduism used the Devanagari, Devanagari script. In certain traditions, strict adherence to prescribed spellings and pronunciations was and remains of great spiritual importance. Islamic naming conventions and greetings are notable examples of the linguistic prescription being a prerequisite to spiritual righteousness. Another commonly cited example of prescriptive language usage closely associated with social propriety is the system of honorific speech in Japanese, Japanese honorific speech. Most, if not all, widely spoken languages demonstrate some degree of social codification in how they conform to prescriptive rules. Prestige (sociolinguistics), Linguistic prestige is a central research topic within sociolinguistics. Notions of linguistic prestige apply to different dialects of the same language and also to separate, distinct languages in multilingual regions. Prestige level disparity often leads to ''diglossia'': speakers in certain social contexts consciously choose a prestige language or dialect over a less prestigious one, even if it is their native tongue. Government bureaucracy tends toward prescriptivism as a means of enforcing functional continuity. Such prescriptivism dates from Egyptian language, ancient Egypt, where bureaucrats preserved the spelling of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt into the Ptolemaic period through the standard usage of Egyptian hieroglyphics.


From the earliest attempts at prescription in classical times grammarians have based their norms on observed prestige use of language. Modern prescriptivist textbooks draw heavily on descriptive linguistic analysis. The prescription may privilege some existing forms over others for the sake of maximizing clarity and precision in language use. Others are subjective judgments of what constitutes good taste. Some reflect the promotion of one class or region within a language community over another, which can become politically controversial. Prescription can also reflect ethical considerations, as in prohibiting Profanity, swear words. Words referring to elements of sexuality or toilet hygiene may be regarded as obscene. Blasphemies against religion may be forbidden. In the 21st century, politically correct, political correctness objects to the use of words perceived as offensive. Some elements of prescription in English are sometimes thought to have been based on the norms of Latin grammar. Robert Lowth is frequently cited as having done so, but he specifically objected to "forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language".


Prescriptivism is often subject to criticism. Many linguists, such as Geoffrey Pullum and other posters to Language Log, are highly skeptical of the quality of advice given in many usage guides, including highly regarded books like Strunk and White's ''Elements of Style''. In particular, linguists point out that popular books on English usage written by journalists or novelists (e.g. Simon Heffer's ''Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write ... and Why It Matters'') often make basic errors in linguistic analysis. A frequent criticism is that prescription has a tendency to favor the language of one particular area or social class over others, and thus militates against linguistic diversity. Frequently, a standard dialect is associated with the upper class, for example Great Britain's Received Pronunciation (RP). RP has now lost much of its status as the Anglophone standard, and other standards are now alternative systems for English as a foreign language. Although these have a more democratic base, they still exclude the vast majority of the English-speaking world: speakers of Scottish English, Hiberno-English, Appalachian English, Australian English, Indian English, Nigerian English or African-American English may feel the standard is arbitrarily selected or slanted against them. Thus prescription has political consequences. The prescription can also be used consciously as a political tool. A second issue with prescriptivism is that it tends to explicitly devalue non-standard dialect, non-standard dialects. It has been argued that prescription, apart from formulating
standard language A standard language (also standard variety, standard dialect, and standard) is a language variety that has undergone substantial codification of grammar and usage and is employed by a population for public communication. The term ''standard langua ...
norms, often attempts to influence speakers to apply the proposed linguistic devices invariably, without considering the existence of different variety (linguistics), varieties and register (sociolinguistics), registers of language. While some linguists approve the practical role of language standardization in modern nation states, certain models of codification (linguistics), prescriptive codification have been criticized for going far beyond mere norm-setting, i.e. by promoting the sanctioned language variety as the only legitimate means of communication and presenting it as the only valid baseline of correctness, while stigmatizing non-standard usages as "error (linguistics), mistakes". Such practices have been said to contribute to perpetuating the belief that non-codified forms of language are innately inferior, creating social stigma and discrimination toward their speakers. In contrast, modern linguists would generally hold that all forms of language, including both vernacular dialects and different realizations of a standardized variety, are scientifically equal as instruments of communication, even if deemed socially inappropriate for certain situational contexts. Resulting in standard language ideology, normative practices might also give rise to the conviction that explicit formal instruction is an essential prerequisite for acquiring proper command of one's native language, thus creating a massive feeling of linguistic insecurity. Propagating such language ideology, language attitudes is characteristic of the prescriptivists in Eastern Europe, where normativist ideas of correctness can be found even among professional linguists. Another serious issue with prescription is that prescriptive rules quickly become entrenched and it is difficult to change them when the language changes. Thus, there is a tendency for prescription to lag behind the vernacular, vernacular language. In 1834, an anonymous writer advised against the split infinitive, reasoning that the construction was not a frequent feature of English as he knew it. Today the construction is in usus, everyday use and generally considered standard usage, yet the old prohibition can still be heard. A further problem is a challenge of specifying understandable criteria. Although prescribing authorizations may have clear ideas about why they make a particular choice, and their choices are seldom entirely arbitrary, there exists no linguistically sustainable metric for ascertaining which forms of language should be considered standard or otherwise preferable. Judgments that seek to resolve ambiguity or increase the ability of the language to make subtle distinctions are easier to defend. Judgments based on the subjective associations of a word are more problematic. Finally, there is the problem of inappropriate dogmatism. Although competent authorities tend to make careful statements, popular pronouncements on language are apt to condemn. Thus, wise prescriptive advice identifying a form as colloquial or non-standard and suggesting that it be used with caution in some contexts may – when taken up in the classroom – become converted into a ruling that the dispreferred form is automatically unacceptable in all circumstances, a view academic linguists reject. (Linguists may accept that a construction is ungrammatical or incorrect in relation to a certain lect if it does not conform to its inherent rules, but they would not consider it absolutely wrong simply because it diverges from the norms of a prestige variety.) A classic example from 18th-century England is Robert Lowth's tentative suggestion that preposition stranding in English relative clauses, relative clauses sounds colloquial. This blossomed into a grammatical rule that a sentence should never end with a preposition. Such dogmatism has often caused resentment. For these reasons, some writers argue that linguistic prescription is foolish or futile. Samuel Johnson commented on the tendency of some prescription to resist language change:

See also

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Examples of prescriptivist topics

* * * * * *



* * * Strunk and White's ''The Elements of Style''

Further reading

* Simon Blackburn, 1996 [1994], "descriptive meaning", ''Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy'', pp. 101–102 for possible difficulty of separating the descriptive and evaluative

External links

Ideology, Power and Linguistic Theory (pdf format)
a paper about descriptivism and prescriptivism by Geoffrey Pullum.
Language Police
at Kerim's Wiki

{{DEFAULTSORT:Linguistic Prescription Sociolinguistics Linguistic purism, Prescription Political terminology Linguistic controversies Language education